The reigning World and European champions from The Netherlands showed they have lost none of their sparkle when topping the highly-charged Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup™ Jumping 2016 leg at La Baule (FRA) today.
This should have been the second round of the Europe Division 1 series, but following the cancellation of the event at Lummen (BEL) two weeks ago due to adverse weather conditions it was the French venue that provided the first opportunity for many of the world’s top teams to measure their strength against each other.
And it was Rob Ehren’s Dutch side that proved strongest when picking up just a single time fault over their two rounds, while Team USA lined up second on four faults and the host nation of France finished a close third with just five.
The heavy rainfall that has been hampering outdoor events all across Europe has not spared this part of France in recent weeks, and course designer, Frederic Cottier, tailored his 12-fence track accordingly. But while the yielding ground was not to every horse’s liking, it didn’t detract from a day of fantastic sport.
Once again the Nations Cup concept more than lived up to expectations, with spectators gripping their seats with excitement all the way through a super-close contest in which the result hung in the balance to the very end.
The tension throughout the competition was palpable, because even though not every nation was battling it out for Furusiyya points, every rider was keen to make a statement of their own.
The Brazilian side may have finished last today, but their trainer, the legendary American George Morris, was given plenty of food for thought by the double-clear performance - one of eight in the competition - of the relatively unknown Stephan de Freitas Barcha and the 14-year-old Landpeter Do Feroleto who have surely staked a claim to a possible spot on the host nation side for this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
There is plenty of Olympic fever in the air right now, so there were a few surprised faces when the French found themselves lying fifth, the powerful German side could only manage to hold on to sixth and the defending Furusiyya champions from Belgium slotted into seventh spot ahead of Brazil at the halfway stage.
Out in front, and all sharing a zero scoreline, were the Americans, British, Dutch and Swiss, and Team USA looked particularly formidable when all four team members were first-time foot-perfect.
But as so often happens with the Nations Cup format there were big swings of fortune, and the Swiss began to lose their grip when Janika Sprunger’s second effort with Bonne Chance was spoiled by a mistake in the middle of the triple combination.
Paul Estermann steadied the situation with an exceptional clear from Lord Pepsi who overcame his first-round fear of the open water to cruise home this time around, but when Martin Fuchs ran into steering problems with Clooney, then an additional eight faults left them looking vulnerable again.
Meanwhile the Dutch were only counting a single time fault from Leopold van Asten and VDL Groep Zidane after a second clear from Wout-Jan van der Schans and Aquila and a faultless effort from Jur Vrieling and VDL Glasgow VH Merelsnest, while the American effort looked to become unhinged by a 12-fault result from their opener Lauren Hough with Ohlala until Lucy Davis and Margie Goldstein-Engle shored that up with double-clears from Barron and Royce.
When Nick Skelton secured the second part of his double-clear with Big Star the British looked dangerous, but Joe Clee’s stallion Utamaro d‘Ecaussines clipped the vertical three from home and Ben Maher left two on the floor with Diva to change their outlook dramatically.
Everything hung on the last-line riders for these four leading teams, but the French began to threaten when rallying from a four-fault first effort to add just a single time fault from Roger Yves Bost and Sydney Une Prince for a two-round total of five, and that became the target-score in the closing stages.
Double-clears from Penelope Leprevost and Flora di Mariposa and world no. 1, Simon Delestre with the diminutive Hermes Ryan meant the French could discount Kevin Staut’s second four-fault result of the day with Reveur de Hurtebise HDC.
Fourth-last to go, Olympic champion Steve Guerdat knew he could keep the Swiss a point ahead if he could negate Martin Fuchs’ double-error by going clear with Corbinian. And he looked set to do just that until hitting the very last fence to groans from the sidelines. The last Dutch duo of Willem Greve and Carambole were next into the ring and were clear again, but there was a gasp when a single time fault went up on the board. If American anchor, Todd Minikus, could stay clear with Babalou then Hough’s 12 faults would be dropped and the USA would win it with a zero score.
But Minikus' lovely 11-year-old mare clipped the oxer at fence four however, while any chance of the British joining them on a four-fault final scoreline were dashed when Michael Whitaker’s Cassionato hit the last two fences. Despite that, the British still had plenty to cheer about today, as Skelton’s return to top sport with Big Star is a real shot-in-the-arm.
The horse has been beset by injury since helping clinch that memorable team gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games but both he, and his much-admired 58-year-old rider, are looking fitter than ever now and must be major contenders for Rio.
At the end of the day however, it was all about the Dutch.
‘It was Wout’s (van der Schans) birthday yesterday and he turned 55, so I thought for his birthday present he could lead the team and go first. It turned out to be a great strategy!” said Chef d’Equipe Rob Ehrens afterwards. And the birthday boy himself was pretty pleased with his double-clear performance.
“He (Aquila) has done that before in Dublin, so it was very good to do it again. He gave me the feeling that he could jump easily today and we came out with a very good result”, van der Schans pointed out.
Willem Greve’s anchor effort proved pivotal, but he wasn’t prepared to steal any limelight - “we all won this today” he said this evening.
Talking about the intensity of the closing stages he said, “there was actually a bit more pressure in the first round because there were so many clears and I had to go clear to keep us up with the rest of the teams. In the second round I knew if I was clear and Todd (Minikus) was clear there was a chance of a jump-off, and I have to admit I mis-judged the time allowed, but I was really pleased with my second round. This was a real team victory - Wout-Jan had two super clears, Leopold also and Jur had a new horse doing his first Nations Cup. It makes you really proud because winning a Nations Cup is one of the nicest and most special things in our sport” he added.
Frederic Cottier wrapped up the days competition. “I was worried last night with the weather and I knew I had to find a good design, and that it was going to be challenging today” he said.
“The course was very technical and delicate, and I didn’t want to tire the horses too much, as there will be more great competition again tomorrow and Sunday. The time was generous in the first round, and in the second round there were a few time penalties....but the suspense was great and the competition was spectacular to the end!” he concluded.
1. Netherlands 1 fault: Aquila SFN (Wout-Jan van der Schans) 0/0, VDL Groep Zidane NOP (Leopold van Asten) 0/1, VDL Glasgow VH Merelsnest (Jur Vrieling) 8/0, Carambole NOP (Willem Greve) 0/1.
2. USA 4 faults: Ohlala (Lauren Hough) 0/12, Barron (Lucy Davis) 0/0, Royce (Margie Goldstein-Engle) 0/0, Babalou 41 (Todd Minikus) 0/4.
3. France 5 faults: Flora De Mariposa (Penelope Leprevost) 0/0, Hermes Ryan (Simon Delestre) 0/0, Reveur de Hurtebise HDC (Kevin Staut) 4/4, Sydney Une Prince (Roger Yves Bost) 4/1.
4. Switzerland 8 faults: Bonne Chance CW (Janika Sprunger) 0/4, Lord Pepsi (Paul Estermann) 12/0, Clooney 51 (Martin Fuchs) 0/8, Corbinian (Steve Guerdat) 0/4.
4. Germany 8 faults: Fibonacci 17 (Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum) 8/0, Epleaser van’t Heike (Christian Ahlmann) 0/5, First Class van Eeckelghem (Daniel Deusser) 0/0, Chiara 222 (Ludger Beerbaum) 12/0.
6. Great Britain 12 faults: Big Star (Nick Skelton) 0/0, Utamaro d’Ecaussines (Joe Clee) 0/4, Diva ll (Ben Maher) 4/8, Cassionato (Michael Whitaker) 0/8.
7. Belgium 18 faults: As Cold as Ice Z (Judy Ann Melchior) 5/8, Sea Coast Pebbles Z (Gudrun Pateet) 4/0, Caracas (Jos Verlooy) 0/1, Papillon Z (Jerome Guery) 8/9.
8. Brazil 22 faults: Premiere Carthoes BZ (Felipe Amaral) 5/5, Fape Fox Trot VD Padenborre (Fabio Leivas da Costa) 8/8, Landpeter Do Feroleto (Stephan de Freitas Barcha) 0/0, Rock ’n Roll Semilly (Marlon Modolo Zanotelli) 8/4.
Full result here